Silly Season: Williams 1991-1994Written by 'Αγγελος Φωτσεινός
Translated by Vagelis Kelemenis
‘’Silly Season’’, a term very familiar to the long time F1 fans.
Date of 1st publication: 30/09/14
Its meaning is the following: the rumors that develop during the summer break about the driver transfers for the next season.
In other words, ‘’who is going to race for which team next season.’’
The climax of the rumors during the summer break does not happen by accident: since work at the teams’ factories stops and there are not any other important news, inevitably transfer rumors take the lion’s share.
Transfer rumors can either be real or completely inaccurate, but in both cases generate great interest.
The ‘’magic’’ of the silly season lies in the cases of drivers that even though the rumors about them going to a team were true, they were never confirmed and the transfer never happened.
For that ‘’magic’’, f1retro.gr inaugurates a new series of articles with exclusive content the silly season per team and a specific time period.
Necessary clarification before we start: in these articles the term will refer to the rumors throughout the whole season and not just the summer break, in order for the background of the transfers to be fully covered.
So let’s start with the silly season at Williams during the years 1991-1994.
1991: Jean Alesi, Nigel Mansell, Thierry Boutsen
The silly season of 1991 had 1 driver as the main protagonist and the target of 2 top teams.
With Senna and Prost being unavailable, Williams was in search of a top driver for 1991.
The best choice was the promising Jean Alesi, who had impressed with Tyrrell the previous year and was also French (something that satisfied engine providers Renault).
So, Alesi was an ardent target and Williams finally got his signature.
However, the French driver was also a target for Ferrari, who was in search of Nigel Mansell’s replacement (who, during the 1990 British GP, had announced his retirement at the end of the year).
Alesi had been a Ferrari supporter since he was a little kid because his idol Gilles Villeneuve made his name with that team.
So, without putting much thought into it, Alesi signed with Ferrari too!
The dispute between the 2 teams about which contract was valid was solved without any big problems.
Alesi chose Ferrari, who then was forced to pay compensation to Williams and also give them… a Ferrari 641, the car of the previous year!
Alesi’s decision left Williams with no other choice but keeping French-speaking Belgian driver Thierry Boutsen for 1991.
Sir Frank Williams though, thought otherwise: he called Nigel Mansell and convinced him to change his mind about retiring.
So Mansell’s return to the team meant that Boutsen was left ‘’feeling out in the cold’’.
In the end, thanks to Renault’s connections, he found a seat at Ligier for 1991.
1993: Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen, Riccardo Patrese, Martin Brundle, Damon Hill
Williams easily captured both titles in 1992, so in theory there was no reason for changing the line-up of Mansell and Patrese for 1993.
However, Williams replaced both of them.
Defending champion Nigel Mansell was offered a contract renewal with a 50% cut to his earnings, so he chose to reject it and move to CART, a US open wheel series.
When Sir Frank Williams was asked if Mansell’s departure was a big loss for the team, he responded that ‘’everyone could win with this car’’.
That ‘’everyone’’ was none other than Alain Prost, whose demands concerning money were well within the team’s limits.
Most importantly though, Prost had restored his relationship with Renault, who eagerly wanted the Frenchman commanding the V10 engines they were providing Williams with.
Williams announced Prost’s arrival during the Portuguese GP, with the ‘’professor’’ immediately making his first appearance with the team’s colors, as he drove the FW148 during the development tests that followed the race.
As for Prost’s teammate, there was only one target and his name was Ayrton Senna.
The Brazilian wanted nothing else more than having a seat at Williams, claiming that he would even drive for free.
Prost, however, didn’t want the reconnection with his old McLaren teammate and bitter rival so he vetoed the decision.
Williams then approached Keke Rosberg in order to learn if Mika Hakkinen was available.
Rosberg’s response was positive and the two sides were very close to reaching an agreement: Hakkinen would follow his manager’s footsteps, by driving for the same team with which Rosberg won the World Championship.
However, Peter Collins, the owner of Lotus (Hakkinen’s current team at the time) had other opinions.
He spread that Hakkinen was committed to a Lotus contract for 1993, a fact that the Finnish driver had confirmed during the Italian GP, but Rosberg had not presented neither to Williams nor Ligier, the teams that were in talks with Hakkinen.
During the Australian GP Collins stated that he had no intention whatsoever of selling his drivers, his moves though did not seem to have any result.
Things turned upside down though, when Williams dug itself into a hole by signing up for the 1993 championship after the deadline had passed.
The team’s participation depended on the other teams’ agreement and it was then that Collins played his last card: in order to agree for Williams to take part in the championship, he demanded them not to confirm Hakkinen’s contract.
The term was accepted and the transfer never happened.
After the disaster with Hakkinen, Sir Frank Williams wanted to stay away from any further trouble.
For that reason, he called Riccardo Patrese, making his intentions clear: he wanted Patrese to stay with the team.
The Italian, even though he wanted to stay, he had already signed up with Benetton and did not want to break the agreement.
So, even the ‘’certain’’ choice was out of the question now.
After the announcement of Patrese’s transfer to Benetton, Martin Brundle was available and in theory the big favorite for exchanging places with the Italian: he was coming off a great 1992, was very experienced, and he was familiar with Williams, because in 1988 he was a test driver for the team, having even took part in the Belgian GP when he replaced Mansell who was out with chicken pox.
Sir Frank Williams however, thought that Brundle was not a good qualifier so his return was never materialized.
So the most ‘’out of left field’’ choice was now the only one that Williams had.
Damon Hill, the team’s test driver during 1991-1992 was eventually going to be Prost’s teammate, cashing in his important contribution to the development of the FW148.
The British driver had not responded to the 2-year contract proposal made to him by Ligier, hoping that he would be promoted from a test driver to a Williams’ second driver, which eventually happened.
1994: Heinz Harald Frentzen, Riccardo Patrese, David Coulthard, Nigel Mansell
The 1994 silly season will not be about the period before the start of the championship, but for the one after Ayrton Senna’s death at Imola.
The team raced in Monaco with only Damon Hill, but they had to find a second driver for the Spanish GP.
The first choice was Sauber’s rookie Heinz Harald Frentzen.
Sir Frank Williams agreed with Peter Sauber as it regarded to the German driver’s release clause, but Frentzen rejected the proposal, claiming that he did not feel ready to step into the shoes of the Brazilian and his big legacy.
After Frentzen’s ‘’no’’, Williams turned its attention to an old friend, who still had a good relationship with the team.
Sir Frank Williams called Riccardo Patrese, who had retired from the sport at the end of 1993, again.
However, the Italian knew what the phone call was about and he gave a negative answer, even before Sir Frank Williams asked the question – he did not want to replace his good friend.
Like last year the most impossible choice was now the only one available.
Test driver David Coulthard would take the ‘’baptism of fire’’ at the Spanish GP and would then race with the team for the rest of the season.
However, when Bernie Ecclestone saw that the TV ratings were dropping after Senna’s death (he was the only active champion of the grid), made a move in order to bring the viewers back.
F1 needed another active champion and for that reason intervened for the return of Mansell at Williams.
The return of the lion would not be easy.
On the one hand, Bernie convinced the owners of Newman-Haas, Mansell’s CART team, to let him compete in F1 during the weekends he did not have racing duties in CART and on the other hand tried to tempt Mansell with a large amount of money: 900,000 £ per race, while Hill’s earnings were just 300,000 £ for the whole season.
Bernie dug really deep, hoping of course that the TV ratings would give him the money back soon.
The ‘’lion’’ competed in 4 races, and fortunately for Bernie, the viewership increased so he did not have a financial loss.
- Frank Williams
- Ayrton Senna
- Alain Prost
- Jean Alesi
- Thierry Boutsen
- Gilles Villeneuve
- Nigel Mansell
- Mika Hakkinen
- Keke Rosberg
- Peter Collins
- Riccardo Patrese
- Damon Hill
- Heinz Harald Frentzen
- David Coulthard
- Peter Sauber
- Bernie Ecclestone